Cleveland native Ja’Ron K. Smith is one of the White House’s highest ranking African-American staffers. He works for
Smith grew up on Cleveland’s Strandhill Road, near Whitney M. Young High School. His father was a longtime Cleveland streets worker who spent summers laying down asphalt and winters plowing snow. His mother was addicted to crack for three years and left his father alone to raise their five children, he says. After his mother kicked her drug habit and got a job at a gas station, Smith says he spent childhood weekends at her home near E. 130th and Buckeye.
Smith’s father enrolled him at Immaculate Conception Catholic School at E. 30th and Superior, as well as in the Cleveland Muny Football League, where he was an offensive lineman for the Cleveland Warriors despite his small stature.
“I was the only lineman who used to weigh in with all of his equipment on,” Smith recalls.
After majoring in finance and economics, getting a summer job at Key Bank and pledging the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Smith says he needed another summer job, so Rotsky introduced him to Isakowitz, a longtime friend.
Isakowitz helped Smith network on Capitol Hill, and land an internship with former Republican Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, a former Oklahoma Sooners and Canadian Football League quarterback who chaired the House Republican Conference. After that, Smith landed jobs with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott as well as another former House Republican Conference chair – current Vice President Mike Pence.
Although Smith says he initially identified as a Democrat, he realized after working with Watts that “all Republicans weren’t racist and rich” and that many of his own core values, like individualism and limited government, were Republican ideals.
“Historically, Republicans have done a lot to empower the African American community, it’s just not really taught,” says Smith, adding that Trump is trying to build “on-the-ground” relationships with the African American community.
“In the community I came from, Republicans or Democrats didn’t show up unless it was an election year,” says Smith. “And so, being there just to do the right thing is valuable, because at the end of the day, Republican or Democrat, some communities have continued to look the same. And we’ve been focused on trying to turn that around and create opportunity for all.”
Smith notes the Trump administration helped pass a criminal justice reform bill that “freed thousands of African Americans and reunited people with their families,” gave historically black colleges and universities the highest level of presidential funding they’ve received in 20 years, and boosted the opportunity zone program that benefits many minority communities. He says he views those policies as ways Trump has fulfilled his campaign pledges to help “the forgotten community.”
“The proof is in the pudding,” says Smith. “A lot of people talk about different things but the president is about action. And we’re going to continue to move the needle there.”
Smith says much of his current job focuses on policies that facilitate revitalization on a local level.
“The president is focused on creating a ground-up approach towards revitalization,” says Smith. “We created infrastructure that can help empower these local residents with some tools, federal tools, that exist on top of educating people about how they can leverage opportunities to bring in private capital to these localities.”
Smith helped develop an opportunity zone policy in Trump’s 2017 tax overhaul bill that encourages investment in low-income census tracts by granting capital gains breaks to qualified investors. Smith says local governments around the United States have designated more than 8,000 opportunity zones with nearly 35 million people residing in them. He said their poverty rates are around 32 percent, compared with a U.S. average of 17 percent.
“It’s a powerful vehicle for economic growth and job creation, and it allows more Americans to share in the economic success of this country,” says Smith. “Our goal is to help jumpstart all communities and revitalize hurting cities.”
Smith also helped draft Trump’s December 2018 executive order launching a White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council dedicated to better using tax dollars to revitalize low-income communities. The council, chaired by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, with representatives from 13 federal agencies, aims to improve revitalization efforts by streamlining, coordinating and targeting existing federal programs toward the Opportunity Zones and distressed communities across the country.
Smith said the council’s goal is fostering workforce and economic development programs, crime and gang prevention, summer job creation “and things like that that help the diversity of needs in some of these communities.”
Now that he works at the White House, Smith, who is married to a defense department scientist, visits cities including Detroit, Chicago, Charlotte, Atlanta and New Orleans to work on their urban revitalization strategies. Although he says he doesn’t have as much time as he’d like to visit his Cleveland family members, he managed to deliver a pep talk to Rotsky’s team during a recent Cleveland trip.
“Nobody would have guessed he’d become a main adviser to President Trump on urban affairs,” says Rotsky. “With Ja’Ron, it’s not about the political party he serves. It’s about getting an opportunity to impact change for people that look like him. That’s what makes Ja’Ron so special. Too many people in these kids’ lives tell them what they can’t do, vs. what they can do. He gave a great motivating talk.”
“There are so many people like me who are full of potential,” says Smith. “Our administration, under the president’s leadership, has just been trying to create an ecosystem to help cultivate the most important thing that we have in our country, and that’s human capital.”